Brother Ali – All The Beauty in This Whole Life

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Some time ago, Brother Ali had vitality and passion. It was a time everyone hated Hip-Hop made for partying, so some did bland, unmusical Boom Bap and others decided Hip-Hop could be about things other than killing and fucking. Nowadays it’s not mind-blowing anymore and that’s okay, since that era gave us Atmosphere whose followers – like Grieves and Sadistik – are the future. Brother Ali had his sure of fantastic tracks.

When I say ‘vitality’, I don’t mean that Brother Ali gone soft or any of that crap. The best song here is “Out of Here”, and his best song overall is “Faheem”, a heartbreaking song for his son that’s arresting from the first note and the moment Ali opens his mouth. There is vulnerability in his voice, one of an everyman who struggles with everyman issues that despite being common they’re still so huge we need music to deal with them. For a long time, it was one of the first songs I offered any time someone went off on ‘Hip-Hop is not music’ rants.

This album continues with the more introspective, less political nature. Nothing here goes hard like “Whatcha Got”, and that’s okay. The problem is, Ali doesn’t sound like he’s really into making music. Many of these songs ramble and don’t go anywhere. When they do, these are messages we’re familiar with and their delivary isn’t interesting or adds something new.

I’m not even sure if Ali is capable anymore. Like any rapper in this style, he had a tendency to make songs that are too dense to be interesting, but “Out of Here” should’ve been more powerful, darker. It should’ve brought the same vulnerability that made “Faheem” so arresting, yet it just coasts along. If it never sends a comforting message like how life goes on, it also doesn’t provide much insight into the topic. Losing someone to suicide is confusing. It shifts paradigms. We don’t just realize someone is gone, but it was death by choice. Someone actively decided that this whole project called life isn’t worthwhile.

According to the story, Ali took a break from music and went on a trip around the world to learn a bit about the beauty and love and life. Just look at the title. This kind of optimism leads to two things. Either there is a madness, an untamed desire to live and experience and contain everything which often leads to gender-bending music or you get dull, non-confrontational Zen bullshit. As if being complacent, or passive or placid, or whatever bastardization of Buddhism we invent is somehow profound.

Ali’s new found optimism isn’t mad and engrossing. All it does is make him less confrontational, with less desire to jump fully into his ideas. “Before They Called You White” reeks of tokenism, not of anger or of intelligence. Ali wants to take on the invention of whiteness. That’s an interesting topic that people don’t say interesting thing about. I can’t even get angry at Ali missing the cases and histories of racism not done by whites. Nothing is more West-centric than pretending whiteness is the great evil, but at least the idiots who spew that are passionate about it. At his most passionate in his song Ali says ‘Post-Traumatic Slavemaster Syndrom”, which is kind of cool. As for the final hook, it’s ironic. If the eye can’t see itself and needs critique, can I do it to all cultures?

Don’t get the impression that this album provides insight into the racial struggles. Nothing here is like Macklemore’s “White Privilege”, an abomination that was at least interesting. The second time Ali talks about race with focus is on “Dear Black Son”, but since race is everywhere in contemporary discourse the song is not interesting. I don’t mind songs about the Black experience, but don’t expect a “The Blacker the Berry”, something that shows the pain of being marginalized, of being always afraid a random cop will shoot you or that everyone still gives you funny looks despite claiming constantly they’re not racist. There is genuine pain to explore here, but this song is nothing but ‘you’re beautiful and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise’. Considering Ali experienced losing someone to suicide, I think if anyone needs this message, they are people who don’t an identity to give their life meaning.

I digress. This review should talk about how dull Ali’s rapping is on this album. Whatever interesting thing he has to say on “Never Learn”, the best thing about is the bluesy beat. Mostly, it makes me wish I was listening to Grieves who is so talented even when the songs are about nothing he imbues them with emotion. “Never Learn” is just cookie cutter serious Hip-Hop, pleasant on the ear and nothing else. Most of the songs are like this. I don’t get it. Ali is a talented rapper and the first single, “Own Light”, has some life in it. In fact, it does hint that the album might be necessary, taking introspective Hip-Hop to a more optimistic direction and creating the antithesis of Sadistik.

Sadly, the end result is introspective Hip-Hop without much going for it, either in subject matter, atmosphere, tone, wit or anything. The impression is that Ali found peace, and now he doesn’t have much he needs to let out in music besides some joy in “Own Light” and sorrow in “Out of Here”. In the title-track which closes the song, he praises God and overall existence. Forget, for a moment, Ligotti’s pessimism and how existence is always bad. Is that how the passion and love for life should sound like? Isn’t happiness and love wild, untamed emotions which we just can’t contain? Aren’t the best smiles those we can’t control? I’m happy for Ali that he’s at peace, really, but if his heart isn’t in music then he doesn’t have to make music.

Anyone remember “Fresh Air”? Now that’s a song that could cure depression.

2 out of 5 here

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Orson Scott Card – Children of the Mind

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‘Children’ is an appropriate word in the title. As for the ‘Mind’, not so much. Card’s finishes his quadrilogy – which started with two classics – on a ridiculous low. It’s not that the novel is bad, but that the flaws are brand new. Card succumbs to all the flaws he avoided when he first started.

Why did the two books split up? Considering how much Card had to say in Speaker for the Dead, it makes sense. His intelligence and complex philosophy still shines through. Instead of shining through storytelling, it’s one essay after another. Sometimes it’s inside the characters’ heads. Sometimes they ruminate and we get the whole thing, uncensored and unabridged. If this was part of a style, fine. It’s not. Rather, it’s a collection of notes – events, ruminations, extended dialogues that all should’ve been trimmed down.

The quadrilogy has philosophical weight, but in the end these novels aren’t pure philosophy. There is an engaging story beneath them about saving the world and what it means to be human. The constant ruminations are like a decent guitar solo extended for 10 minutes. One or two profound phrase is okay since it helps us focus on the themes. When there are whole paragraphs where nothing happens, that’s when you know the editors were dead.

If Card is so against destroying other species, why are the editors extinct? This is a flaw I encounter a lot when reading works by unpublished writers. They’re confused, not sure entirely what their story is about and afraid the audience won’t get them. The fear is justified considering how everyone loved Fight Club for the wrong reasons. So they fill their stories with character thoughts and speculations.

When I get these stories fresh from the oven, I don’t mind. Nobody has gone over them to trim the unnecessary stuff and what should remain as notes. A story doesn’t come fully formed from our minds. We must write it down, see how it looks like on paper and then play around with the pieces. You don’t really know how your story works until you actually write it down. If I read a story where half of it is notes the author should’ve kept to himself, that’s fine. They needed to write this to get the information out of their heads, to acknowledge it exists.

When I read a story filled with notes by a published author, I get angry. Card doesn’t show ideas. He doesn’t even let characters’ personalities filter them. Philosophies are the main characters now. The novel is filled with philosophical conversations and ruminations, and it’s all so disconnected from the story.

Philosophical essays contain ideas, but fiction is how we imagine them taking from. We need literature because that’s how we imagine the effect philosophies have on our live. I can write an essay about how everyone should have assisted suicide easily available for them, but through fiction I can imagine how such an idea might impact society.

The danger of piling philosophical conversations and ruminations in your novel is this. If they overpower the story, they lose connection. We no longer see the ideas in action, so we no longer see the importance. A good story doesn’t just give me insight into an idea, but makes me care about it. By having an emotionally engaging or thrilling story, I get emotionally invested and see the importance of the idea.

The philosophical conversations have no element of humanity in them. They rarely inform us about the characters or their big worldviews. Watching them is like watching a discussion on CMV-Reddit. You see the ideas isolated from a person dissected, analyzed and evolved. That’s fascinating, but that’s not a story. Moreover, CMV has an abundance of people. This novel written by one person. It’s really one long monologue in disguise, which is a shame. A monologue by a person – especially a talented writer like Card – could’ve been fascinating.

Children of the Mind isn’t an unrestrained novel. It’s a novel without purpose that jumps from topic to topic but in the end goes anywhere. We shouldn’t kill other people. We should try to understand people. Haven’t we heard this all before? Wasn’t it more convincing when characters were either morally grey, or when we saw the weight of heroism? The absence of Ender makes his character duller. Without him to show us the weight of his virtues, everyone just opens up a fanclub.

Everyone also acts like douchebags towards each other. Suddenly 21st-century internet lingo caught on and characters swear. Dirty words don’t offend me, but their sudden appearance is odd. Even more similar to stereotypical internet talk is how many dialogues go. So much belittling, being sarcastic and condescending you have to wonder why these people are doing with each other. Nothing actually happened between this novel and Xenocide, so when did everyone started swaggering like Tarantino?

The basic idea behind the ending couldn’t have been better. It ties the novel directly to the first one, but it’s still anticlimatic. Besides that tie to the first novel, nothing actually happened in that ending. The conflict was solved, events happened but no conclusions reached. The people of Lusitania may feel better and may be able to expand their colony, but I’m in the same place.

Children of the Mind gets by only because it’s a part of the Ender Saga. There are interesting ideas, but Card is trying hard to push himself when he ran out of things to say. It even lacks the occasional outrageous moment of Xenocide. That novel was empty, but you could trim it to a decent novella. A kind editor should’ve told Card that he’s writing a story, not a hodge-podge collection of conversations with self, ruminations and the occasional encounter with aliens. At least the first two books are constructed well enough they stand on their own.

2 children out of 5 minds

Veronica Roth – Allegiant

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You were so close, Veronica Roth! Allegiant doesn’t live up to the hidden brilliance of the beginning of the trilogy. It’s a step forward, though. Everything that was wrong with its predecessor is gone. The flaws stem from the author’s original limitations, but she’s always on the brink of doing something interesting.

The book quickly settles down after one or two shootouts. The main problem with Insurgent was how heavily it relied on action scenes. That novel barely had a plot and barely progressed the story. It could’ve easily been summed up and turned into 1-3 chapters in the beginning of this novel. This time Roth slows down and lets the characters and the world do the talking.

She’s still attached to exposition. One character primarily exists for spitting exposition and vanishes in the third quarter of the novel. Roth’s world is meaningful, though. What drives it are concepts relevant to everyday life. Even if she relies on info dumps, the information is often interesting to ponder.

The book contains a big twist that rips Roth’s world. Many will find it insulting. I find that it draws a big line between this book and the first one. Sequels shouldn’t just show what happens next. If that’s all they show then they’re useless. They should take the characters to a new direction, to try new structures and themes. The twist doesn’t turn the original themes in Divergent irrelevant. That one explored one subject, and this one explores new ones.

Roth’s new theme is interesting, but disastrously shallow. The question of genetics, nurture vs. nature is interesting. How do you explore scientific ideas in fiction? You actually don’t. Fiction is the opposite of science. It’s fictive, not real whereas science is concerned mainly with facts.

Any other dealing with scientific concepts must remember this. You never ask where a scientific fact is true or not, but how it would affect us if it were true. That’s a big, important distinction. If we find a way to mine the asteroids, how would it affect our consumption of resources? If we find we can travel faster than light or even teleport, how would it affect our perception of distances?

Roth asks this question about genetics. She asks how a society where people’s personalities are shaped by genes is like. Her society doesn’t actually answer this question, though. In fact, the scientific fact doesn’t come into play at all. If Roth wanted to ask this question, she first needed to create a world in which the ‘genetically ruined’ are truly different than the ‘genetically pure’.

Her world isn’t different than ours. It’s just racism all over again, only instead of having crackers and niggers it’s about ‘genetically pure’ and ‘genetically damaged’. The shallowness runs so deep that the differences don’t even exist. Now, I’m the first person who supports chucking away the idea of ‘race’. The idea of dividing humans into races is pseudoscientific, but every pseuodoscientific idea has some basis. People do have different colors. The ‘genetic damage’ in the book might as well not exist. Roth dismisses it as a bunch of charts and equations on a screen. This isn’t exploring an idea but denying it outright.

The whole conflict ends up as meaningless. It’s a bizarre type of meaninglessness. The villain has a system of facts and ideologies to work from, but since Roth erases these facts the poor thing ends up as delusional. He’s not senseless or understandable, but completely out of touch. He evokes more pity because Roth couldn’t give him anything to do.

She’s more successful exploring her other themes. The novel includes the 3rd time or so that everything turned out to be a lie and she addresses that. Characters don’t only react to new information, but react to the fact they’ve been told so many lies. Tobias’ point of view emphasizes this. He’s in constant doubts, never completely sure he’s doing the right thing. His confusion is refreshing, especially as a romantic lead. In the predecessors he was a bit of a mysterious bad boy and man of steel. Here, he’s the one who’s weaker emotionally. He’s the one who needs love, not the opposite. It’s nice to see male vulnerability in a romance.

Speaking of relationships, the romance doesn’t really develop but doesn’t get in the way. For a trilogy that obviously comes from the same school of Hunger Games and Twilight, it’s bizarre. There are kissing scenes and some fighting, but the romance is smoothly integrated to the story. In fact, it was actually necessary. Such an action-heavy story needs moments of tenderness. The relationship does suffer from blandness. Beyond the fact both Tris and Tobias are a warring type, there’s nothing to connect them. Still, the relationship is fairly balanced and healthy while having emotional ups and downs. It may be bland, but it’s more realistic than common dreck.

Roth is at her best when she’s addressing violence. She never took violence for granted despite relying on explosions to drive her story. The few action scenes in Allegiant leave an emotional impact. Sometimes characters do die so others will react, but it’s interesting. Tris and Tobias aren’t traditional in how they’re never completely desensitized to the violence. By the end of the novel they’re sick of it. They give up the explosive heroics for the low-key route. It’s not a complete subversion of our gore-obsessed heroic stories, but it’s something.

The main things all the good points have in common is that they’re not enough. Roth has these good ideas. She rejects some traditions and paves a way of her own, but she doesn’t progress. Her most glaring flaw is how empty her characters are. Her plot is a set of obstacles to overcome and she leaves little choices or opportunities for her characters to react. Even a linear role-playing game lets the player react differently, even if they only have one option. There’s no difference in tone or manner of speak between Tris’ chapters and Tobias’ chapters. No matter how many good ideas Roth has, her characters are so empty that it affects the final product. I can respect it from a distance, but I can’t get involved in it.

Allegiant is a good conclusion for the trilogy overall. It shifts the focus back to exploring ideas rather than explosive heroics, but Roth never goes full retard. The characters might as well not exist and the ideas are there without being developed or played with. It’s decent, more enjoyable than annoying but often it feels like a big tease.

2.5 genetically pure humans out of 5

TumblrInAction, Feminism and The Straw Men

Look, I love TumblrinAction. The things they post are hilarious. They’re so disconnected from reality and logic, so dying to protect their little worldview that they will lash at everything. I talked to religious people who stick to their dogma, but it’s never like this. The religious often have a sense of doubt and humility. They think, “God shows me X and Y. The rest isn’t up for me”. The posts on TumblrinAction are different.

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Check this picture. This person is sure he has to resort to fanfiction because gay people are so hard to find in literature. Now, of course there will be less gay people than straight ones in literature. There are less gay people overall. It’s how I can’t expect Jews to feature in a lot of books, because Jews are a worldwide minority (Actually, they do have a presence in literature for some reason but that’s a different discussion). I only have to Google ‘Gay Literature’ and I get a huge Wikipedia article┬áthat even links to a page about gay literature from Singapore.

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In this one, they rail against nature. You were born blonde? Too bad! You appropriate cultures and are a racist! It’s funny how quickly this degenerates into saying people are X because of what they were born with. Isn’t that how racism works?

As hilarious as that subreddit is, we need to remember this. No matter how good an idea is, it can still attract morons. We will still eat our favorite type of food just because it has the potential to attract flies.

TumblrinAction is useful in displaying what went wrong with social justice. As an idea, it’s not bad. There’s no reason why one group should have more power over another because of illegetimate reasons. There’s no need to discriminate people based on skin color or sex or body structure.

Social justice, at its best, makes us question assumptions about society. Racism and sexism are dogmatic. They do not encourage discussion. They promote the idea that individuals belong in a certain group and that determines their value. These are inherent traits that can’t change. These are not fluid categories that change, nor do they have scientific basis. Sex exists, but it’s not our only trait. Race is complete pseudoscience.

Social justice should make us these question these assumptions and categories. It should question the main narrative, offers a new one but make sure the new one is also open to criticism. If you criticize something but refuse to check the flaws in your alternative, you do not care about improving things anymore. You only care about gaining power.

It’s similar to the Left/Right axis. The purpose stops being improvement or solving problems and it become defeating some enemy. That’s what we see in a lot of social justice discussions today. They’re not really discussing specific issues, but just look for ways to push the narrative of victimhood. That’s why EverydayFeminism publishes an article about how focusing on female pleasure is misogynistic (because it might! Just might put pressure on her) or the article about “People say Islam is homophobic because of racism”, sweeping away any evidence.

Criticism of these people can easily degenerate into what they are. If the only social justice content you encounter is from TumblrinAction, you’ll become just another raving extremist. I haven’t seen it in the subreddit itself, but I’ve seen people react this way to the content that gets published there.

A guy on Facebook keeps ranting about feminists, how they are all full of hate and uses examples from crazies on Tumblr. The irony is, MRA’s rarely talk about raped-males and such issues in a way that’s not a weapon against feminism (Dear MRA’s: Male victims of rape aren’t weapons in your silly little war). He cheered for the removal of feminism from history lessons. Apparently, since feminists offended him now it’s okay to remove facts from history lessons. There was even a post which could be summed up as “You got raped because it’s your own fault”.

This is not a person who believes in equality and is frustrated with what feminism became. I’m not going to get on anyone’s ass just because they don’t label themselves feminists. I tackle ideas, not people. Still, this is an example of a person who doesn’t care about equality or anything. It’s about defeating the feminists, the so-called hateful bigots. Issues aren’t discussed. Rather, he posts rants about feminists or by feminists and use it as proof they’re out to get our precious fluids.

We must be wary of being too attached to our ideas. The purpose of our ideas is to be useful. If an idea isn’t true nor useful, it must be discarded no matter how much we love it. Ideas are supposed to serve us. We shouldn’t serve ideas. The question rises: Some people will stick to ideas that only benefit themselves and might harm others, no?

Of course, but this is a different discussion, of selfishness vs. community. Even if what drives you is pure selfishness, you still need to avoid getting attached to ideas. You might miss ideas that will benefit you more.

The Fallout Series

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To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

I was introduced to the Fallout series via Bethesda’s entry. If your exposure to RPG’s consist of their fantasy series and Dragon Age, you were probably a little shocked by the angry vitriol aimed at Fallout 3. The cries went beyond Bethesda’s changing the gameplay. The series wasn’t known for its fantastic turn-based combat that’s based on luck. Bethesda were criticized with ruining the original spirit of Fallout, and New Vegas was praised with reviving it.

Playing the original Fallout‘s failed to convince me Bethesda did a disservice to the series. It did the complete opposite. Although New Vegas had plenty of references to the old games, and a lot of characters made a comeback, Fallout 3 felt like an actual continuation of the series, at least continuing what begun in the first game. New Vegas continues Fallout 2 and how it turns the wasteland into a wacky, fantastical world. That wasn’t the heart of the series though. No amount of name-dropping things from previous entries will help you capture the old spirit.

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“The Unity will bring about the master race. Master! Master! One able to survive, or even thrive, in the wasteland. As long as there are differences, we will tear ourselves apart fighting each other. We need one race. Race! Race! One goal. Goal! Goal! One people . . . to move forward to our destiny. Destiny.”

The forums in RPGCodex define players as either storyfags or combatfags. I’m deep in the storyfag party. Combat in video games is mostly for easy fun, something to do while checking out the latest records and thinking how overrated the canon is. Perhaps one day I’ll see the beauty of a million algorithims that decide whether my character dies or becomes a banana octopus, but until then it’s the storytelling that’s much more exciting. Fallout didn’t have an interesting combat system either, but its strength was always in its storytelling.

In the first game, you are not born in the wasteland, unlike 2 or New Vegas. You emerge from the vault into a world that’s completely alien to you. It’s not just alien because it’s supposed to be the first Fallout experience. The wasteland reveals itself slowly. You do not immidiately hear about the booming center. You do not meet fantastic events in the beginning. The game begins with a small, unremarkable town. Later, the towns’ size increases, which turns your first encounter unique.

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The wasteland is neither depressive and gloomy nor a huge satire of humanity. It thrives on weirdness, but not weirdness for the sake of cheap amusement. The litany of absurd things – two-headed cows, an irradiated maniac with the name of an egyptian God and the various cults are here to show us the absurdity (and beauty) of still trying to make it through a wrecked world. It makes little sense to try to survive in the wasteland. Mutated animals, radiation, anarchy – the future doesn’t seem to exist, yet people are still trying to make it.

Fallout 3 continues in that vein. Worshipping an undetonated atomic bomb and people pretending to be superheroes makes perfect sense in the wasteland. It’s a place that will most likely break people down mentally, instead of keeping them normal. The gameplay and the actual fictional world are not the same thing. The gameplay always makes it easier to survive, but imagine if you were really there. The world that surrounds you is wrecked, most animals are distorted and you probably heard old tales of how bright the future could be. You might also be pretty lonely. Putting on a superhero suit makes sense in this setting. It will drive you crazy, and the suit might intimidate some people.

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New Vegas and Fallout 2 can’t keep this theme going. Fallout 2 actually starts fairly well, even if the tribes would have been more comfortable somewhere in Planescape (Unlike the cult in Megaton, Bright Brotherhood or the Unity Church, the tribes have little connection to the game’s themes). Broken Hills and Modoc are great places. The former is an experiment where the three races live together and the latter is a depressed, doomed community that the wasteland is bound to have hundreds of. Things start to get worse once you get to New Reno. The gang wars aren’t updated to fit the wasteland. This isn’t a case of taking an inspiration from something real and changing it to fit the wasteland. Instead, Black Isle lifted mafias with all their drama and visual style and just placed them in the wasteland. The bouncers wear fedoras. The families are powerful. The casinos are prospering. Later on, you’ll encounter a strange Chinese cult. Fallout 2 may be a frankenstein of sorts, consisting of parts from RPG’s buried in development hell.

New Vegas is slightly better, but it’s a western more than anything. Most of the people act like cowboys and ranchers. The whole look of the place relies on how we thing the wild west was. The Mojave is treated more as just a desert, instead of a wasteland. The general view of Fallout 3 is full of ruined buildings and dark skies. New Vegas has the great outdoors that are a common feature in country music. Again, we see here imagery lifted straight from an unrelated genre with little change to it. Obsidian did slightly more with the material they lifted up. This form of wild west does make sense in a post-apocalyptic world. Fallout‘s main source of inspiration, Mad Max, was a western in a post-apocalyptic setting. The people in the Mad Max films though were just as weird as those of the Fallout series, but they had their own culture and myth. New vegas’ culture is just a slightly altered western.

Fallout 2 and New Vegas are praised for their amount of choices, unlike Fallout 1&3. It’s a cool gameplay mechanic, but unless these choices are meaningful storywise, that’s all they end up. They become as meaningful as your choice between a shotgun or a submachine gun. Caesar’s Legion is a boring faction which consists of bad guys with no motive. At least the Enclave look like good guys as seen from their point of view. The NCR and Mr. House are much better, and represent ideas more complex than good and evil. New Vegas‘ plot doesn’t really develop these, though. There’s a point where you make your choice, and the main quest becomes a series of hoops to jump through in order to get to the big battle. At some point, the game stops delivering new informations about the factions. In Fallout 3, you keep learning about the wasteland throughout the various quests. It’s only the final one that is just one huge action scene. I won’t even start on Fallout 2. The terrible Scientology parody and the Chinese took me out, and I keep finding better games to play.

Video games are themselves all about choices. Something happens in a video game only if you choose to do it, even if it’s as dull as moving to the next level or keep hanging around this one. The choices mechanic in RPG’s is just an expansion of it. Good storytelling in video games doesn’t need choices, and choices only improve the storytelling if they help to develop more meaningful stories. The choices in Planescape: Torment are great not just because they add a bunch of different routes. These choices increase the number of meaningful and great stories that the game can tell, and that’s what increases the replay value. The choices in New Vegas don’t offer a particularly new story, and Fallout 2 is just a mess. It’s the first and the third just offer great stories, and if they have to be linear to do it then it’s a sacrifice worth making. They also both deal with the theme of race with more depth than most fiction, something I will elaborate on in a different post.

Pictures are taken from the Fallout Wiki